Moving America Forward

In Indianapolis, Trash Is Everyone’s Treasure

October 6, 2016
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In Indianapolis, Trash Is Everyone’s Treasure
People for Urban Progress (PUP) upcycled seats salvaged from Indianapolis' Bush Stadium and installed them at bus stops around the city. Courtesy of People for Urban Progress
How do you get local residents to care about sustainability? Salvage items from their city’s beloved stadiums and put them to use for the common good.

What good can come from a demolished football stadium? That’s the question Indianapolis twins Michael and Jessica Bricker asked themselves in 2008, when the city slated the RCA Dome, home to the Colts’ NFL team for a quarter-century, to be dismantled.

To their surprise, the Brickers found they were the only ones asking if materials could be reused, rather than dumped. “We are very much in this place in history where architecture feels as disposable as plastic or anything else. We have this sense that once a place is old, it’s used up and just turns to trash,” says Michael. “These huge stadiums, which were all built in the 1970s and ’80s, are not nearing the end of their lifespans but are being replaced anyway. That’s not going to change. We have the opportunity, as citizens, to expect and demand reuse of those buildings as part of the plan.”

After city officials agreed, the twins salvaged 13 acres of waterproof, Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric, which had once stretched across the stadium’s ceiling. With it, they fashioned a series of bags, ranging from zip-up weekenders to clutches, that generated $70,000, essentially building a social enterprise a year before Kickstarter became a household name.

The Brickers invested the proceeds into a new nonprofit, People for Urban Progress (PUP), whose goal would be to introduce upcycling to the city. Calling themselves a “do-tank,” they took on a series of projects, like refurbishing 9,000 bright orange seats left over from the demolition of the city’s Bush Stadium and installing them at bus stops around Indianapolis. They also used some of the leftover fabric from the RCA Dome and built standalone canopies that provide shade in area parks.

PUP’s mission, Michael says, has been to get people thinking about sustainability — a word rarely heard in Indiana a decade ago — from the very beginning of any public-work design. Even better, he adds, is when sustainability intersects with the adrenaline-fueled world of sports, whose big-business spectacles generate a lot of waste. “We’re trying to almost reengineer the whole process,” Michael says. “We’re thinking about these resources through their entire life-cycle and trying to be smarter about how everyone can use them every step of the way.”

Indianapolis, located in a vast, flat expanse of Midwestern lands, doesn’t necessarily have a strong sense of place — nothing like San Francisco’s hilly terrain or New York CIty’s rivers and bays. Growing up there, the Brickers never expected their home would be a hub for smart design initiatives or a thriving arts culture. But as people have moved back to the Hoosier State capital’s urban core in the wake of the Great Recession, there’s been a revival of local brands and some new upstarts like PUP who are making investments in the city. Connected by a cultural trail that loops through downtown and various PUP projects dotting neighborhoods, Indianapolis’s identity feels resurgent.

For other cities admiring how PUP’s creative projects have benefited Indianapolis, the Brickers suggest starting by looking at all architecture as an asset. That includes not just repurposing bricks, steel and wood, but also textiles like firehose fabric, and structures like parking meters and payphone booths. If you’re willing to take on the cause and find designers with a fresh perspective, the Brickers say, you’ll have no trouble figuring out what to do with them.

Homepage photo of PUP messenger bag courtesy of People for Urban Progress

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